John Row was a British officer in the 9th Regiment of Foot, and he was in love with Jane Innes. For six years their courtship was maintained largely by correspondence due to separations caused by his military obligations. Dozens of their letters survive in the National Archives of Scotland, revealing a touching love story conflicting with the struggles of an officer trying to advance his career.
Row began writing to Jenny, as he greeted her in every letter, in 1775 when he was posted in Dublin soon after they met. They hadn’t made their mutual interest known to her family, so they agreed to limit their correspondence so as not to arouse suspicions. The next year saw the thirty-two-year-old officer embarking to join the war in North America, his regiment part of a strong reinforcement for the army in Canada. With great enthusiasm for the coming campaign, he wrote to Jenny that “the six Regts who go from here are in the highest spirits, and I can with pleasure say and without vanity that we are by far the finest Regt of the whole, both in figure and discipline.”
They disembarked in “Quebec which is not the worst Country in the World.” Row’s letters from America are not particularly interesting, providing no new information or perspectives on the campaign in 1776 that reclaimed every bit of ground that had been lost the previous year. On July 3 he mentioned that “the most troublesome enemy I find here being the Mosquitoes,” and opined “that the business will be very soon finished without bloodshed, and that we shall enter peaceably and quietly into comfortable winter quarters in Philadelphia, New York or Boston.” He apologized in several letters for writing so frequently, since he did not know when the next opportunity would arise. A long winter in lonely isolated quarters curtailed their correspondence, which resumed only briefly in the spring of 1777 before a new campaign began. In the meantime Row had received only one letter from Jenny since departing Ireland, and he feared for her health as she battled respiratory complaints.
In May 1777, “after a long and joyless six Months imprisonment in winter quarters,” Lieutenant Row wrote that “I never was in better health, and soldiers are always in good spirits when taking the field.” It was his health, however, that caused the next hiatus. In November he wrote from London, informing Jenny that he had received an “unlucky wound” in the right knee at the battle of Hubbardton on July 7. As an officer in the grenadier battalion of Burgoyne’s army, he saw a lot of hard campaigning before being put out of action, but he recounted none of it in his letters. Sent back to Great Britain to recover, he hoped to return to his regiment in the spring. The campaign he left went badly, though, and in October the 9th Regiment went into captivity after the British capitulation at Saratoga. Row returned to Scotland, spent time with Jenny, and negotiated with her family. This sojourn was a short one, however; love-smitten though he was, Row was also very determined to advance his career.
With his regiment on service in America but also in captivity, there was no way for the zealous officer to distinguish himself. In fact, there was very little for Row to do at all, since his regiment wasn’t even allowed to recruit. He bided his time in the English towns to which he was ordered, writing to Jenny frequently, seldom offering anything of importance other than his career frustrations and occasional other difficulties. In April 1778 he wrote from Grantham, Lincolnshire:
was arrested here last Saturday evening by an attack from one of my old American enemies the fever and Ague. I had no expectation of such a reception here, and am persuaded that some fatality hangs over me in this town, for here I lost my Montero cap when on my way towards you last winter. . . . The time has been when I could have bore all these changes of weather without feeling them, but I have America to thank for that alteration in my constitution, amongst other favors.
Four days later he was in Norwich:
There are present here besides me, two Captains and one Ensign. The latter I never saw before but seems an exceeding genteel accomplished young gentleman, a Native of Virginia who came over to this country with Lord Dunmore, whose fortunes he has followed.
With 1778 passing in frustrating career stasis, Row set his sights on obtaining a post in one of the many new regiments being raised in response to France’s entry into the war. The commanding officer of the 9th Regiment advised against such a move, pointing out that these new regiments would probably be disbanded at war’s end, but Row was undeterred.
In 1779 he finally got the chance he sought, obtaining a captain’s commission in a new corps, the 85th Regiment of Foot. Jenny objected to this choice, for not only would it keep them apart as he worked to recruit and train new soldiers, but it also stood to put him at risk if the regiment was sent abroad. His frequent letters relating details of his recruiting and training activities did not put her mind at ease. In August he wrote from Norwich about the difficulties he faced in a competitive recruiting environment where enlistment bounties were increasing:
having just now sent nineteen Men to the Regt, and have therefore only six more wanting to compleat my quota, tho I am afraid those last may cost me more trouble than all the rest, as not only several other young Corps but the Militia are now all beating up at very advanced prices.
When recruiting was completed, he expressed pride in the new corps in spite of having many relatively short men in the ranks: “We are very small but in general young & stout—our grenadiers are really fine ones.” By January 1780, he was hard at work at Chatham Barracks outside of London:
Our Barracks are situated on a hill some distance from the town, and the good people round us never have the smallest curiosity to visit us, and we still less to visit them, so that for mixed society, I might just as well be in the wilds of America.
Our oldest Major (Phipps) is now with us, and having a great deal of the Rage Militaire and we standing in need of it as a young regt of course are kept very tight at work. Obliged to be on the parade every morning at half past eight when unless it rains hard we continue exercising and maneuvering ‘till eleven at which time the guard mounts, we then go to breakfast after which time the little interior duties of companies occupies us ‘till the drum beats again for a second parade at two, when we continue at the same amusement ‘till four, when we go home and dress and go to dinner at five.
Our Regiment astonishes every one as they continuously have profited by the strict discipline, and as to parade and shew there are few before us. We have one of the completest bands of Musick I ever saw, soley at Lord Harrington’s expense.
By the end of March, the 85th Regiment was fit for service and received orders for deployment to the West Indies. Jenny was mortified and wrote a long letter expressing her dire concerns for her beloved’s fate. Hadn’t he already risked enough and suffered enough? Not only would the climate be his enemy, but he would be exposed to greater danger because the effects of his wound made him less adroit than younger officers. Having stated her misgivings, she agreed to say no more on the subject.
As the 85th was preparing to embark, an artist arrived at the port offering his services to officers who knew they might be leaving their homeland for the last time. Row commissioned a portrait for Jenny, which the artist prepared for by using a projection machine to create a silhouette. Row mailed the silhouette to Jenny on March 30, 1780, and this rare image remains enclosed in the letter to this day. It is a fascinating look at this man who zealously sought to balance love for a lady and a career. If, that is, the image actually depicts John Row. His comments about the silhouette cast interesting doubts on the likeness:
Inclosed I send you my shade in profile but which from my opinion of it is either badly taken, or else I make a very bad one which the person who took it tells me is the case of every one who has not high features. It however cost me nothing as I employed him to take my portrait in profile which only cost me half an hours sitting, and it will be sent to you cased up wither by the coach or wagon, but will be some considerable time before it reaches you, as it will be a fortnight from hence before he has time thoroughly to finish it.
I could not meet with a Miniature painter so thought one portrait might be better than none. It only costs frame and every thing a guinea & a half, but the worst of the bargain is that I appear the most stupid insipid looking fellow imaginable, and to compleat my mortification every one tells me that it is a most striking likeness but the painter endeavours to comfort me by saying that I would appear much better in a front view but I had not time to risk one as it would have required a much longer sitting and we only wait for a change of wind.
Every one of us who have been ashore has got their pictures drawn by him Lord Harrington Commodore Walingham &c and I must say the most striking likenesses I ever saw, and as he talks of going to Scotland I may venture to recommend him tho’ he has not pleased me, his Name is Sharpless.
In a subsequent letter Row went so far as to suppose that the artist had accidentally given him the silhouette of another officer:
I enclosed a profile shade which seemed so unlike me that I suspect he made a mistake in giving me another for mine as he took it off the glass where he had taken the outlines of my profile portrait the evening before. You may however suppose it me ‘till you get the other which every one says is excessively like tho’ it has put me quite out of conceit with myself, he having given me the most insipid vacant look imaginable, at least to my eyes.
Jenny made no comment on the silhouette, but when she received the portrait she was as unimpressed with it as she was with his decision to go overseas. She wrote:
I was somewhat disappointed with the Crayon as I do not think it a favourable likeness especially in the under part of the face, in the upper it resembles you more & place it at a considerable distance & it is certainly upon the whole like, but it is a bad resemblance coarsely done & with materials which discolour & fade very soon. I however return you my thanks for it such as it is
It is unfortunate that Jenny was so indifferent to the portrait, for it was the last image of her suitor that would ever greet her eyes. Her fears about John Row’s safety were realized: He died in Jamaica on September 29, 1780, just ten weeks after arriving in the West Indies, victim not to battle but to contagious diseases that carried off nearly half of his regiment.
The letters are in several bundles cataloged as GD113/5/73a, /73b, /74 and /206a, Letters from Lieutenant John Row to Miss Jane Innes, Milne’s Court, Edinburgh. Everything in this article is from these letters, Row’s in particular, unless otherwise stated. There are a great many letters by both Row and Innes; this author did not have enough time to read through the collection thoroughly. There may be much more to the story than appears here.
WO 34/127/169, National Archives of Great Britain. The cause of death is not stated, but is assumed because of the great mortality in the 85th and 93rd Regiments, newly arrived in Jamaica. An anonymous letter from Jamaica published in the newspaper Drewry’s Derby Mercury on December 22, 1780 read, “The local Diseases have carried off an incredible Number of Men belonging to the new-raised Regiments under the Command of Lord Harrington and Col. M’Cormick. The few Remains of these Regiments lie encamped at a Village near Kingston, and enjoy at present a pretty tolerable State of Health, after having outlived the Contagion. It is amazing how they are reduced, the Remains being scarce sufficient to complete one Regiment, into which it is shortly to be united.”